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Traditional Nordic colours and their origins

Updated: Nov 9, 2019

Approaching Larvik

In order to spend our many summers in Norway, we would drive from the Netherlands to Frederikshavn in northern Denmark and take the night ferry to Larvik just across the Skagerrak in Norway. We would reach Larvik by dawn. The first things that strike you when approaching Larvik on deck of a ferry, are the colourful houses scattered along the rocky coast and the fresh smell of the sea; the sort of experiences that stay with you forever.

I still, to this day, have a crush on those typically Scandinavian colours the houses are painted in. Colours that are historically meaningful and have always served a purpose. Blue used to be my favourite; the colour I was totally in love with, but as time passed (doesn't that sound familiar ;-)) my taste changed and nowadays I prefer the reds and the ochres.

The red

Traditional Norwegian house paint is made from non-toxic linoljemaling - paint based upon pigments, linseed oil, water, wheat and rye flour - which has a breathable, weather- and waterproofing function against the harsh climate. The paint comes in a handful of typically Nordic colours. First and foremost, there is the rich and eye cathing red. Red, a pigment by-product of copper mining, specifically in the town of Roros, is simply low cost iron oxide. Even a harsh climate with extremely changeable weather conditions could not harm the houses. The red mud paint lights up earth-red in dry weather, but in damp weather it is a few nuances darker. As it proved to be very effective for the preservation of wood, it became the traditional colour for barns, homes, sheds, outbuildings and outhouses. The greens, the blues, the yellows and the whites (which was the most expensive and often used by the well-to-do) came later.

The ochre

The easiest pigments to obtain come from the earth, the deep sienna red (red earth) - as mentioned before - and the somewhat more expensive ochre yellow (yellow earth). Those were the colours mostly used by the farmers. A largely hierarchic colour system that can be seen throughout the Northern countries marks the older, farming-related and often cold storage buildings with the earth colours; the lighter varieties are used in wooden or brick buildings and have a higher status. So, the color of one’s house showed one’s social status: as said, the red houses, made with earth-pigments were for the poor people. Ochre and yellow tones, made with copper, was a bit more expensive than the red and white, made with zinc, was meant for the well-to-do.

The blue

It is said that flies hate blue. The only color that flies can see well is white. They see yellow fairly well and apparently, as said, they hate blue - and green by the way. Red makes everything appear dark to them. Southern and eastern nations, which are far more pestered with flies than the Nordic countries, have discovered the flies' dislike of blue. To avoid flies, the Arabs treat their houses with a light blue wash, and the Japanese hang curtains of blue glass beads and bamboo at the entrance to their baker and butcher shops; curtains that are often used anywhere in the world. Equally important, blue is a good summer colour. It keeps out the heat, and thus keeps the (storage) rooms cool and the flies away. As the outbuildings and sheds in Scandinavia were often used for storage, the blue served a clear purpose.

The porcelain and the ceramics

The love for Scandinavian blue in porcelain and ceramics has been unwavering. Many a Nordic porcelain manufacturer, such as Royal Copenhagen, have had the finest blue dinnerware in their collection for decades...or for ages rather. They have been true specialists when it comes to the use of cobalt in early porcelain. Cobalt pigment happens to be one of the very few that can withstand the highest firing temperatures that are required, in particular for porcelain. This partly accounts for the long-lasting popularity of the cobalt pigment. Historically, many other colours required overglaze decoration and then a second firing at a lower temperature to fix that.

A fine example of the use of cobalt in porcelain is Royal Copenhagen's first complete line, named Musselmalet Riflet (Blue Fluted Rifles). Musselmalet came into the world as early as 1775 and it was revised in 1885. Today, the classic blue floral pattern is still being produced according to the original process while each part of the collection is handled as a piece of craftsmanship, carefully painted by hand.

The hytte and the colours

When my parents started decorating our hytte in Norway, they wanted to add some traditional features to it, and as my mother had an eye and a talent for painting and rosemaling - a traditional form of decorative folk art that originated in the rural valleys of Norway - she took upon her the grateful task of applying the right colours in the right places and decorating doors, cupboards and objects with beautiful patterns.

Now, except for the objects that my mother so passionately created, I wouldn't exactly add rosemaling features into my interior, although I must admit to be more and more inclined to do so and to be even more honest, traces of all of the above mentioned are found throughout my house ;-) Moreover, I must admit that I definitely am a huge fan and user of the traditonal linseed based paint, for my home. Talking of's excellent weather for some outdoor home improvement as we speak ;-) Wishing you a great weekend!

Paint: linseed oil based Moosefarg in Vasa Svart.

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Linseed oil based paint:

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